The Drama of Earth Systems (Pt 3)

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Back in 2006, I attended an attachment conference held annually in Salt Lake City. Very much like Dr. Pynoos’ talk on trauma narratives mentioned in Part 2, this attachment conference featured a speaker who captured my imagination.

Dr. Abraham Sagi-Schwartz gave a presentation entitled Holocaust Child Survivors and their Offspring: Vulnerability and Resilience. Dr. Sagi-Schwartz told us that even though he appreciated John Bowlby’s theory of attachment, one aspect of Bowlby’s theory troubled him.

Bowlby’s theory holds that psychological trauma, both at individual and collective levels, could be passed on to future generations through what is known as the transgenerational transmission of trauma or what I will call TToT. Bowlby theorized that psychological trauma could be passed on to future generations through the process of Inner Working Model formation and exchange. Allow me to sketch this out for you.

Recall from Part 4 of my previous blog series Beyond Thoughts & Prayers how mothers (or other caregivers) facilitate psychological birth by not only introducing the infant/toddler to his or her (or its) mind but also by using intersubjective exchanges to help build the brain’s ability to form Inner Working Models or Maps. As we learned from Antonio Damasio’s work, Inner Working Models or Maps are hybrids in that they are part body and part mind thus bridging the so-called body-mind dichotomy so often debated in philosophical circles. Sadly though, the hybrid nature of Inner Working Models can become dissociated as the left brain “mind” becomes dissociated from the right brain “body” though psychological trauma. People who are experiencing psychological trauma will often describe the feeling that body is separate or dissociated from mind. Equally sad, people will often engage in behaviors such as self-cutting or various forms of addiction in an attempt to reunite body and mind, if only temporarily. This is why it is imperative that relief efforts following a disaster begin as quickly as possible, and have as one of their chief aims keeping body and mind together. In my opinion, this is why Dr. Sagi-Schwartz’s study is so profound.

Using Bowlby’s theory of attachment as a backdrop, Dr. Sagi-Schwartz was concerned that the catastrophic trauma of the Holocaust specifically (and WWII generally) would be passed on to future generations through TToT, that Icarus would always disobey his father’s warnings and, by flying toward the sun, meet his ultimate demise. Dr. Sagi-Schwartz conducted a cross-sectional study where he interviewed and assessed three generations of women: generation one (female children who had survived the Holocaust), generation two (daughters of these survivors), and generation three (granddaughters). What he found surprised him. Rather than levels of psychological trauma being passed along from generation to generation unabated as TToT would predict, levels were diminishing. Dr. Sagi-Schwartz then began wondering why a central tenet of Bowlby’s theory was apparently incorrect. He began a follow-up investigation designed to better understand what was attenuating the transgenerational transmission of trauma. Here’s what he found; here are the factors that seem to be attenuating the effects of TToT.

  • social support
  • genetic factors (e.g., children of Holocaust survivors may have inherited genes that protect against trauma reactions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD)
  • secure emotional infrastructure prior to the Holocaust (a factor Bessel van der Kolk also pointed to as a result of his relief efforts following 9/11)
  • trauma was perceived to be “external” (e.g., not inflicted on the children by parents or other trusted attachment figures, but, in fact, by anonymous and destructive social forces)
  • a sense of strong collective national identity that resulted from being in Israel, a feeling of being in a place that is free of anti-Semitism
  • search for meaning was encouraged (i.e., the work of Viktor Frankl would be an example)
  • ability to form bonds with fellow survivors and construct a collective story or narrative
  • access to public Holocaust memorials
  • continued strong bond with deceased parents facilitated in large part through successful mourning, parents perceived to provide continuing spiritual support

In my opinion, Dr. Sagi-Schwartz’s study radically changes how we look at the transgenerational transmission of trauma. The theory should now read as follows:

Psychological trauma, whether at individual or collective levels, could be passed along to future generations UNLESS a concerted effort takes place designed specifically to attenuate the effects of trauma.

As talked about in Part 2, a huge and longterm relief effort spanning twenty five years took place following the 1988 earthquake in Armenia. Dr. Sagi-Schwartz tells us about the longterm efforts that have greatly helped Holocaust survivors over the generations. In contrast, Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich tell us about how Germany has not moved past the trauma of WWII (see part 2). Similarly, in her 2001 book entitled Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation, art critic Susan Napier suggests that the fembot images that populate Anime represent the father loss that Japan experienced as a result of their defeat during WWII. Not only was there literal father loss associated with WWII and the dropping of the atomic bomb, Japan as a nation also lost her faith in the Father’s ability to keep its people safe and protected. According to Napier, three generations later young Japanese Anime artists are representing father/Father loss and associated locked mourning in themes centered on violence, destruction, cyborg attacks, and unprotected, waif-like fembots with saucer eyes, all themes that can be found in many computer games today. (Napier points out that the saucer eyes depicted in Anime have a real world referent: Japanese people watching the atomic explosions of WWII.) Evidenced by the huge popularity of Anime (especially here in the U.S.), it is possible that Japan is still in a locked phase of trauma, still locked in a trauma narrative. What about the U.S.? Here’s what I wrote in a 2017 blog post:


Is it possible that Mellennials, by attaching to their screen devices, are engaging in some of the above healing processes that Dr. Sagi-Schwartz discovered? Through social media they are forming a strong sense of collective identity, even a national one. Many now consider Facebook to be its own country. Mellennials are engaging in the search for meaning in digital worlds. Again, they are forming bonds with each other through their digital devices. I just throw this out there for consideration. Trauma gets passed on transgenerationally if everything goes bad, that is to say, the above types of things do not happen (as happened with vets returning from Vietnam). But if the above types of things happen, say, for returning vets, then trauma does not have to be passed on across the generations. Dr. Sagi-Schwartz’s work points out one of the big limitations of psychotherapy: it’s done with individuals or small groups. It is nearly impossible to bring society into the therapist’s room. So, who’s left to bring about the therapeutic effect of such things as memorials and creating a shared story? Typically leaders, whether religious, political, or business, are expected to bring a therapeutic effect to the masses, to make us feel safe and secure (a la Peter Marris’ work).[1] This is probably why in most societies there are such things as shared mourning rituals, graveyards, and days for remembering the dearly deceased. Sadly, such rituals are in short supply here in the U.S. Also sad is the paucity of leaders who have the gift of healing the masses. Whether you felt him to be sincere or not, President Clinton struck a chord with the American public when he would simply state, “I feel your pain.”


In the next blog post I will introduce the idea that the U.S. is also in a locked state of trauma arising largely from the tectonic shifts of WWII and aftershocks such as the Korean War, the war in Vietnam, and the various conflicts in the Middle East. I’ll trace out the various systems responses that have emerged as a result of this locked state using the work of Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Gerald Midgley, and Katherine Hayles as a backdrop. Along the way I will suggest that current efforts to address Earth Systems crises, such as global warming, will have negligible results unless the decades if not centuries of accumulated psychological trauma, which is itself an Earth System, is also addressed. If it is not addressed then we may have only one choice and that is to become (more) posthuman as talked about in Hayles’ book How We Became Posthuman and others such as Francis Fukuyama’s book Our Posthuman Future, and Finn Bowring’s book Science, Seeds, and Cyborgs: Biotechnology and Appropriation of Life. Stay tuned.

Postscript: I know I’m getting ahead of myself, however, I just wish to mention a point that Hayles makes in her book. Hayles is talking about procedural memory, which is the memory that one uses when they ride a bike or drive a car. Procedural memory is closely associated with the body in that telling someone about how you drive a car (mind) is decidedly different from actually driving a car, which necessitates having a body and being embodied. Procedural memories are built up over time as one practices the piano, or learns to drive, or learns to fly a plane, or learns a sport. One develops body memories, however, body memories that follow certain rules and are constrained by biological potentialities. They are hybrids just like Damasio’s cognitive maps or Bowlby’s Inner Working Models.

Hayles states: “This property of the habitual [i.e., of the procedural] has political implications.” She continues, “When a new regime takes over, it attacks old habits vigorously, for this is where the most refractory resistance to change will be met.” Hayles is referring to the fact that procedural memories or Inner Working Models, once set up, are exceedingly difficult to change mainly because they exist in the right subconscious brain. Using the work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu as a backdrop, Hayles suggests that “all societies wanting to make a ‘new man’ should approach the task through processes of ‘deculturation’ and ‘reculturation’ focused on bodily practices.” This explains why so much of politics centers on such things as abortion, vaccines, and sexual preference. It also explains why overturning Roe vs Wade carries with it the potential to bring about trauma as it is designed to separate body from mind as trauma often does. As Hayles talks about at length, one possible way to protect against body becoming separate from mind is to “download” mind into a mechanical body, to become posthuman.

As I will talk about more in upcoming posts, I think we are moving into the deep end of this merging or “downloading”process. How do we keep from drowning in the deep end of posthumanism? It will take a concerted effort designed specifically to keep mind and body together. We need healing from trauma. If you desire to heal the Earth, you will have to spend time healing the people who call earth home, who call Earth Mother. Liberals focus on global warming; conservatives focus on community cooling. Both are important issues. Both need to be addressed. It’s a hybrid, plain and simple.



[1] For more on this theme, see the 1996 edited volume entitled The Politics of Attachment—Toward a Secure Society (Sebastian Kraemer & Jane Roberts, eds.). This volume came out of a conference of the same name held at the Tavistock Clinic in 1995.